Conspiracy or Transparency?
For the past nine weeks I’ve been taking a course in fiction writing. As part of the class, we write short stories and critique each other’s finished works. The other night we critiqued a classmate’s story about a woman who worked for a corporation that took extreme measures – from forcing employees to sign far-reaching confidentiality agreements to installing cameras on campus – to protect its secrets.
As with other stories, we eventually got around to discussing the believability of this one. I thought the level of secrecy at the company was a bit overdone (and not intended to be), but my classmates reached an unusual consensus on this point: it was a very realistic portrayal. They agreed that regardless of the size of the corporation or the type of industry, executives spared no expense to keep information from the public, and even from employees.
The discussion reminded me of this widely held perception. It also reminded me of the purpose of a project I’ve been working on for Patagonia – to increase the transparency of our work.
That project – The Footprint Chronicles – puts this notion about corporations and transparency to the test more than any other I’ve worked on. It originated from the belief, citing Socrates’ philosophy on leading an examined life, that we need to continuously learn about ourselves in order to lessen our own footoprint. It also grew from the belief that by sharing what we learned with the public, we would earn customer confidence and inspire other businesses to be more transparent, too.
But increasing public transparency in a company is, without doubt, an extremely difficult task. For one, the idea of publicly discussing corporate or product “problems” directly clashes with traditional business ideas on brand and product promotion – despite the argument that increasing transparency can retain, and even gain, customers. Secondly, that argument about transparency and customers is really just that – an argument – since so few companies have actually tested it outside a certain comfort zone. And lastly, these things severely complicate the job of building support for increasing transparency, not just internally, but with the outside suppliers where much of a company’s footprint lies – and with whom support for such a project really depends.
For these and other more practical reasons, we slowly felt our way through the first few rounds of The Footprint Chronicles. The stories stayed close to the mechanical processes that go into building proudcts, rather than diving into the complexity of the issues around them. We relied mostly on information and images provided by the companies we profiled. We were trying to figure out what information we, and our customers, wanted and needed to reach our goal – to promote continuous improvement in our entire business, from concept design to product sales.
Since that time, we have been pushing out – starting to tackle the messier social, as well as environmental, issues involved in any business, to feature the views of more critics and customers in our videos, and to collect more photos and information on our own for the slideshows. Cara Chacon, our new Director of Environmental and Social Responsibility, provided some of the photos and information for the latest round of Footprint Chronicles slideshows, and we gained the support of one of our highly-regarded jeans suppliers to speak publicly about the environmental and social challenges that Cara found on her initial visit there. At the last minute, we indefinitely postponed including another supplier after failing to gain their support to talk about their challenges, as well as successes. Finally, one of our product assessments questions the environmental compromises we made in producing our Chacabuco Pack.
None of this is evidence that we’ve reached a summit, but rather reflects the evolution of our ongoing attempt to increase our corporate transparency. On the way, we hope to find that it's possible – and perhaps even essential – for a corporation to be more fully transparent and be a successful, sustainable business. We also expect to find that the long-term benefits of transparency outweigh the short-term drawbacks to competitive advantage, given the state of our planet and changing customer expectations.
As is the case with any ongoing attempt, the final outcome is uncertain. However, our experience with other attempts (whether in business sustainability or sport) is encouraging. We are often successful, we always learn and the uncertainty makes for a fun and exciting ride. I hope you join us in charting our progress by watching the latest stories (search "footprint" at patagonia.com), and sending us your feedback. Your feedback is a crucial part of the process, as the Footprint team continues to learn, adapt and move forward.
[Above, left - One of the many steps involved in constructing our Chacabuco Pack. This photo comes from a series of pictures taken by Kevin Cotleur, our new product developer for packs and luggage, during his first visit to the factory that produces these packs. The company, Kanaan Saigon Company, operates their factory in Duc Hoa, Vietnam. Photo: Kevin Cotleur. Above, right and right - An example that illustrates the value of first-hand factory visits. Photos and captions come from the slideshow series "Sewing: Bangalore, India" in the Footprint for our Organic Cotton Jeans. [upper photo] "Before placing our first order we had reviewed a third-party audit that gave Arvind a substantially clean bill of health. But third-party auditors often rely on local staff, who may see that workers wear required face masks. . . . [lower photo] but not notice they are wearing flip flops (common work wear in many Asian countries) around chemicals. Local auditors can be invaluable - they know the language and culture and thus often see things that a foreigner might miss - but might miss other things. This brought home for us the critical importance of having our own staff visit a factory. Photos: Cara Chacon]